A spy expert tells us whether real-life intelligence operatives are as handsome, well-dressed, and ripped as Tom Cruise.
BY JULIE MILLER
While seeing the absolutely entertaining Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation this weekend, you may find yourself asking some questions: Are all real-life spies as handsome as Tom Cruise? Is it really possible to create a convincing disguise in minutes? What would happen if an actual intelligence officer threw protocol out the window and jumped onto a plane just as it took off? In an effort to answer these questions, we reached out to Dr. Vince Houghton, the historian and curator at the International Spy Museum, who dispelled some of the most common movie-spy myths while providing interesting information about the real-life Ethan Hunts of the world.
Movie Myth: Spies are always kinda hot.
Spy reality: Spies are occasionally kinda hot, and are deployed depending on the mission’s requirements. “You want people who look like Daniel Craig or Tom Cruise if you need someone to go to a high-society function and fit in,” Houghton says. “Sometimes you want people who can recruit [assets] using their looks. And I don’t mean via sex—we frown upon that in the United States. They use sex a lot more in the Soviet side and East Germany, using what they call ‘honey traps’ or ‘Romeo spies.’ But it’s much easier to get someone to like you and work with you if you are good-looking and suave and you have the ability to kind of psychologically get into their head a little bit.”
Movie Myth: Spies drive the same kind of expensive cars as professional athletes and billionaires.
Spy reality: “Spies are driving cars that blend in,” Houghton says. “So if you are infiltrating a high-society ball where everyone is a multi-millionaire, you are going to be driving a nice car. If you are just driving through the streets of Moscow, you are going to be driving a clunker. The idea of espionage writ large is be nondescript. Don’t stand out.”
Movie Myth: High-speed car chases happen so often that they tend to get a little boring, quite frankly.
Spy reality: “High-speed car chases only happen when the mission goes very, very bad,” Houghton says. “When you’re driving 100 m.p.h. trying to escape from something, you’ve really screwed something up. Your best-case scenario is that you’re driving the speed limit the entire time you’re on the mission and no one knows you’re there. Most of the time you are good enough to avoid this kind of thing.”
Movie Myth: A luxury car with enough horsepower can get a spy out of any bad situation.
Spy reality: “You can’t outrun the radio, you can’t outrun weapons, you can’t outrun drones. So driving fast doesn’t necessarily get you out of trouble. If you’re by yourself, you get arrested. There is no reason to get shot up. In a lot of these cases, they will just kick you out of the country.”
Movie myth: A spy can chuck protocol out the window in favor of a bad-ass stunt that solves a problem—that is, leaping onto a plane as it takes off without anyone’s permission.
Spy reality: “If he’d survive, he’d probably be fired,” Houghton laughs of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’s opening stunt. ”One of the most important prerequisites for employment at the C.I.A. is being mentally competent. Yes, you need to take chances . . . however you don’t want someone who is so batshit crazy that they are going to get themselves involved in a situation where they are putting their lives and the mission in danger. Someone like Ethan Hunt would have been so cultivated by the American intelligence agency; so much money—millions and millions of dollars—has gone into his training and his background that he is an asset to the U.S. government at this point. And for him to go willy-nilly and hang off an airplane—that’s just not a good use of government resources.”
Movie myth: Spies have access to the coolest gadgets, instant mask-making laser kits included.
Spy reality: “Sometimes life imitates art and sometimes vice versa. There have been times when gadgets in these movies are so technically behind what the agencies are actually doing. If they are, we don’t know about it until much, much later, because spy gadgets or technology is something that gets classified longer than everything else—basically because we don’t want people to know how we are doing things. But there are stories from the heyday in the agency, back when the Bond movies were the number-one movie every time they came out, where the director of the C.I.A. would wander down to the Science and Technology guys, the gadget makers, and say, ‘Hey did you just see the new Bond movie? They have gadget so-and-so, can we make that?‘ And there were other times where the S&T guys would be like, ‘Yeah, we’ve had that for 10 years’—like facial-recognition software, ways to see inside of things that you couldn’t regularly, the ability to create masks very quickly based on new and innovative material technology.”
Movie myth: A special agent often finds himself in situations where he is handcuffed, surrounded by a handful of armed bad guys, and has to fistfight his way out.
Spy reality: “There is a reason that overseas operatives are trained in hand-to-hand combat and escape and evasion. . . . They’re trained in things like how to get out of handcuffs and duct tape and restraints. They are trained in how to resist torture and all of these things that you see in the movies. They may find themselves in those situations . . . It’s not likely but it’s possible. So they do get training on these things. There are people, however, like our executive director at the Spy Museum, Peter Earnest, who spent 35 years in operations at C.I.A. and never carried a gun.”
Movie myth: All special agents have six-pack abs.
Spy reality: “I know a lot of current and former operation people, and they are not ripped like Tom Cruise. Most of the people who are working for C.I.A. overseas are not jumping out of planes, they are not going down on zip lines, they are not beating people up. You need to be relatively fit. We are talking about a relatively high-level, high-stress job, so you don’t want to be someone with high cholesterol.”
Movie myth: The life of a spy is incredibly sexy and dangerous.
Spy reality: “My general feeling on all movies about spy agencies is that the more boring a movie is, the more realistic the movie is. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which puts most people to sleep, is one of the most accurate spy movies. That is realistic. Even the Bond-ian types [of intelligence officers] are doing smart work and analyzing ways to get people to give information over. It’s about seducing people’s minds and sometimes seducing people’s bodies, but it’s a lot less shooting and blowing shit up and more about, ‘How can I do this effectively?,’ which doesn’t make for a very good movie usually.”
Movie myth: It’s no big deal to kill a bad guy.
Spy reality: “The civilized nations that have established intelligence agencies don’t tend to kill off their professional competitors because it would turn into a free-for-all,” Houghton says. “If I work for the C.I.A. and I infiltrate the Soviet Union, even as a spy, and I am captured, I have diplomatic cover. . .They may arrest me or interrogate me for a couple hours but for the most part they are just going to kick me out of the country. They’re going to let me go because the minute they kill one of ours, we start rounding up theirs and making their lives a living hell.
“That’s with the actual nation-states. With terrorism, with non-state actors like organized crime or the North Koreas of the world, you do have situations where you are not going to get captured and released. So you might have to shoot your way out of a bad situation.”
Movie myth: Spies have expertly tailored clothing and a designer closet full of suits and tuxedos.
Spy reality: “They might have an amazing designer closet if their cover is an international playboy or business person. If they are going to play a high-stakes casino game against an international terrorist money launderer then, yes, they are going to have a tailored tuxedo. But if they are just trying to fit in as a deputy assistant agricultural attaché—that would be a public servant who is making like $80,000 a year. They are shopping at Men’s Wearhouse. If you want to fit in, that’s what you wear.”
Movie myth: A spy can lose a tail in a matter of minutes with a few intriguing, stunt-laden maneuvers.
Spy reality: “If you wanted to work inside Russia in the Cold War and you needed to get clear of your surveillance—we call it ‘going black’—you could go on a counter-surveillance run, meaning changing buses and going on different metros and on walks,” Houghton explains. “That could take you four or five hours to get black.”
Movie myth: Special agents are magically able to produce the right car, clothing, and gadget for a mission.
Spy reality: The logistics side of the C.I.A.—the science and technology, the gadget makers, and the logistic people—they provide the backbone for any of these operations overseas. They are the ones who are going to be saying, ’O.K., you’re going to be doing this. Here is your cover. Here is your passport. Here is your pocket litter.’ (That’s the stuff you carry around that shows where you are from—like a gym card from Washington, D.C., a ticket stub from a local baseball game, a dry-cleaning slip.) Those things need to be manufactured by the agency and not by the spies themselves.
They provide clothing, cars. Sometimes they are bought off-the-shelf but sometimes they are tailor-made for the specific mission—a suit with extra pockets or a car that has concealment devices—that stuff is done in-house.
Movie myth: Each day as a spy is packed with action sequences and close calls.
Spy reality: “In our Bond exhibit we have something called ‘My Bond Moment,’ and it’s a theater where we have real-world former spies—C.I.A. and F.B.I. personnel—talking about that one time in their career, and these are long careers, where they had a moment that was Bond-movie worthy. A former director of counter intelligence in the F.B.I. spent decades hunting spies, and his one Bond-worthy moment was a time he was in Moscow—and he was in Moscow a lot—but one time the K.G.B. harassed him a little bit. This is someone who briefed Reagan weekly about counter-intelligence. He was as deep in espionage as you can get.”